Tuesday, July 23, 2024

David Dixon, of consultant Goody Clancy, speaks at an April 11 community meeting about the process the consultant is taking to craft suggestions for the future of development in Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A neighborhood attempt to block development around Central Square failed to be heard Monday, blocked by city councillors who protested they weren’t given enough time to look over the proposed changes.

“This is bad, bad, bad form, and it’s not the way business here is done,” councillor Ken Reeves said in rebuke to Minka vanBeuzekom, who tried to bring forward the petition for a downzoning proposal crafted by citizens.

Residents were allowed to speak generally on the Area IV Neighborhood Preservation Petition, though, on a 7-2 vote by councillors. Nearly 40 people signed the petition, but it was filed too late for the council’s standard agenda. When vanBeuzekom tried to bring the petition forward for debate and a vote as a late policy order, it was batted back by Craig Kelley and Tim Toomey — strange bedfellows — as well as Reeves.

When public comment survived, though, many people expressed alarm over buildings proposed by developer Forest City for addition to University Park near Central Square. The buildings would have risen as high as 165 feet in an area zoned for 80; at the previous week’s meeting, plans for the tallest building, an apartment tower that would have taken away most of a small park, were taken temporarily off the table while plans for a commercial building went ahead, likely coming to a vote at the council’s sole summer meeting on July 30. (The citizen petition will reappear then as well.)

“What and where is the overall plan for all the projects bearing down on the squares?” asked Area IV resident Nancy Seymour. The question reflected the concerns of many speakers noting the council would be voting on a 725,000-square-foot building and possibly a returned apartment tower several months before the city’s $350,000 consultant, Goody Clancy, filed its suggestions for Central and Kendall squares in a process that began more than a year ago.

Even George Metzger, president of the Central Square Business Association, urged that “we let the process run its course and be prepared to act when the recommendations come through,” and it was a sentiment anticipated by Reeves, who led the charge for a design process in Central, before residents spoke.

To that end, “any strategy the community can use to slow things down would be a good thing,” resident Richard Goldberg said, another common thread in public comment supporting the spirit of the petition. Toni Bee, the elected poet populist of Cambridge, repeated the sentiment and said — in a poem — that she supported the downzoning because she realized city development was preventing middle-class residents from buying homes in their own city, and from children returning to settle in their hometown after college.

Supporting development

But the downzoning petition had its opponents as well, including resident Saul Tannenbaum.

“We have not repealed the laws of supply and demand. Other than a return to rent control, the only way [to lower the cost of housing] is to build housing,” Tannenbaum said. “We need to build more housing.”

Based on presentations by the consultants, it is likely the Goody Clancy recommendations will encourage adding height and density to Central Square for commercial and residential real estate, although it’s not certain that philosophy would extend to the area of the Lafayette Square firehouse at 378 Massachusetts Ave., behind which the apartment tower might rise.

The residents’ petition, referring to “unbridled development,” looks for less density in four areas around Central Square and Area IV by assigning different types of existing zoning (for instance, to “Business B2” from “Business”) and asks that no permanent structures be built in three area parking lots “except those necessary to collect parking fees and/or provide charging facilities for electric vehicles,” and nothing above 15 feet in height; and that only temporary construction for performances, festivals, farmers markets and other events be allowed; and that at least 7.25 percent of construction be for landscaping such as trees and flowers.

Residents said the petition was about not just the Forest City proposal, but should be taken as a referendum on the direction the city was going in development and as a statement that there seemed to be disconnect between the actions of the council and the approach wanted by many residents.

“We’re at a crossroads. I think we all sense this. This is not one little thing. This is a march to a different vision of where the the city is going, especially Central Square,” said David Fichter, another resident.